The Trail Runner
Written by Tom Hill // Photography by Chris Davies
Running is simple. It is probably the one exercise that almost everyone on the planet has done at some point in their lives – even if it was as a child, chasing around the park, playing tag. It requires little or no specialist kit, no sports field or referee, no team or opponents. Perhaps it is human nature to create competition where possible, but running is not necessarily sport – it is just running.
I live in a city. I found running, because it was simple. I could do it before or after work and even on the busiest of days, I could make time for a quick sprint around the block. Day in, day out, my runs start and finish on pavement. I might break out into suburban trail, trace edges of parks and fields, charge through patches of woodland, but I am never far away from the sounds of cars, from buildings, from people. My running provides a mental, if not physical, escape from the modern world – an opportunity to do nothing other than rhythmically place one foot in front of another. To become, almost meditatively, lost in the activity.
I will never take for granted how lucky I am to be able to enjoy what is on my doorstep, to be fit and healthy enough to run and take pleasure in exercise. I crave more though. I crave greater freedom. I crave space, and rather than seeking escape from my surroundings, I want to immerse myself in the landscape. I want to run without my feet hitting the tarmac, I want to leave the city behind and run in the fells, hills and mountains. The beauty of running is that it isn’t difficult to do this. I can run pretty much due north from my house and be on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Dales in an hour or two. Sometimes though, it is worth making an effort to explore somewhere further afield, and rather than using my feet to reach the destination, using them to explore when I get there.
I met Chris the photographer through friends. We’ve worked together on our shared passion of mountain biking many times. He curses me as I ride off up the hill, leaving him to lumber on behind with a heavy camera pack. I curse him as he asks me to push back up the descent for ‘one more shot’. We both ‘get’ mountain biking but Chris didn’t really get running – especially not mountain running – so I wanted to show him how special it could be, and why it holds a powerful grip over me. To do this we planned a trip to the mountains, to film a typical trail run. Actually this was a special trail run. A perfect trail run.
Running might be simple, but finding perfection rarely is. If we were to go to the effort of travelling somewhere, we might as travel to the middle of nowhere. The nearest place to the middle of nowhere in the UK that I could think of was the far north of Scotland – Assynt. I had a particular mountain in mind, one that has captured my imagination since I first saw pictures of it. At 731m high, Suilven might be diminutive in height, but it isn’t in stature.
A few miles from the coastal town of Lochinver, standing proud of a sea of gently rolling moorland, bog, heather and lochans, Suilven is made up of two distinctive summits, rising like whales breaking the surface for air, linked by a sharp ridgeline. It is a beautiful and unique location.
The route the film traces starts on the bay in Lochinver. It is possible to drive closer to the mountain, but there are no real short cuts to be achieved. An extra few kilometres of track is no hardship, and I like the neatness of being able to run from coast to summit, low to high, water to earth… to sky.
I tap out the same steady rhythm that I do on my home tarmac. Roads are roads are roads, regardless how beautiful the setting is… and boy, it is beautiful. Road gives way to track, gives way to bog, gives way to rock and scrambling. All the while, Suilven fills my vision. It appears impregnable until I am on the final steepest slopes. A faint track traces its way through rocky ramparts.
Spilling out onto the ridgeline, breaking through the last of the spring snow, I could immediately drop down the other side, but I break south, to the highest point, scrambling, running, playing in the sky. Before long, nothing remains above me. The panorama that unfolds is unmatched in the UK. Cobalt seas mirror a blue-as-blue-can be sky.
As I turn to retrace my steps to the ridge, my sight is drawn closer to the moorland immediately below, to the lochans and heather. I feel as though I’m flying as I spring across the small plateau, dance down rocky steps, and surf down scree on the opposite face to which I climbed.
I toy with control, trusting my legs to find their way, but ever aware that they are not used to the fells. Like a playground slide, the gradient eases, the terrain softens. I open out my legs, no longer needing to break my speed, but embracing the rhythm that the trail dictates, no longer beating my own drum. The path joins a river, and I follow it back to the sea, imagining that I am a drop of water caught in the flow, rolling over the rocks, seeking the shortest route down, surging back to where I began.
And in that moment, I am lost, everything is truly perfect. This is why I mountain run. This is why I run. This is why I need to be in the mountains. This is why.